We see Tysons Corner, the new building-boom Tysons Corner, mostly from our cars, in a series of amazing glimpses, a new city that is not a city, a suburb that is not a suburb, something all too familiar and yet, to put it mildly, different.
There is a great deal of superficial variety among the new buildings at Tysons, along Westpark Road and routes 7 and 123, almost as if someone had dipped a pilfering hand in a second-hand shopping bag of modern architecture and sprinkled the take over the Virginia hills. But there is a pervasive sameness, too.
And if there is a word to describe this strange assortment the word, oddly enough, is "ducks." In "Learning From Las Vegas," their irreverent study of the architecture of the commercial strip, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown defined buildings that are "ducks" and those that are "decorated sheds."
"The duck," they explained, "is the special building that is a symbol; the decorated shed is the conventional shelter that applies symbols." In other words, a duck is an unornamented building wherein structure and form themselves become decoration and symbolize what goes on inside. The authors derived their off-the-wall name from a duck-shaped drive-in restaurant, "The Long Island Duckling."
By this definition, ducks are the prevalent building type in modern architecture. By the same token the new Tysons Corner is a duck pond.
In addition to an assortment of more-or-less conventional boxes--the old computer-punch-card box, the recessed-window-as-sculpture box, the Rosslyn brown box, the mirror-window box and even a fool-the-eye, "look, ma, no windows!" box--you have your basic stone temple-on-the-hill, your massive concrete and glass fortress-on-the-hill and your corporate headquarters module, flashy or tasteful (take your pick).
If this hurried assessment is a bit unfair, the basic point is worth making: Whatever their differences in design quality and whatever the oddball differences in the signals they send out to a passing motorist, each of these buildings quite convincingly says what it is and what it does (or, more precisely, what people do in it), almost as if each carried a billboard saying "Office Building" or "Research Complex." (That, however, would make them decorated sheds.)
This sameness, couched in terms of unique architectural personality, makes a strange, very strange, collective environment, neither truly suburban nor truly urban, a curious new mix emanating sensations of raw power and a chilling mindlessness at the same time.
Part of the problem is that the new Tysons buildings are sitting ducks, for the most part, because each is a free-standing monument unto itself, separated from its brethren by the necessity of being surrounded by large parking lots. This focuses undue attention on each of the individual buildings and makes it impossible to hide the cheap, the bad and the ugly structures in some kind of restrained ensemble.
To approach the same problem from another point of view, the issue is architectural quality control, the seemingly insurmountable obstacle that defeats planners and governments (when they think of it at all) the world over. In the Washington area it is clear that fierce territorial competition for development dollars takes precedence over even rudimentary notions of design quality.
The sole notable exception is the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., an independent agency that was given sizable powers by Congress 10 years ago in order to meet what was perceived as an extraordinary challenge. Perhaps that is part of the problem, too. The PADC can serve as a useful model only when massive building projects, such as the one at Tysons, are conceived of as business not as usual.
This does raise an interesting question. Let us pretend for a moment that the Tysons hills and valleys were dotted with nothing but truly extraordinary buildings by the best architects imaginable. After all, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with architectural "ducks"--even Venturi does not claim as much--and we do have at least a couple of glorious examples in the area (Saarinen's Dulles Airport, for instance, or Pei's East Wing).
The question is, would the results be better, and if so, how much better? A lot better? A little bit better? Or, to put it another way, would the results be a lot crazier? A little bit crazier? Less crazed?
As I said, an interesting, and hugely hypothetical, question. What we've got, after all, is what we've got, and in some ways it makes even the much-reviled K Street look good. There's no question about it that inch-for-inch the new K Street corridor in the District contains some of the worst, most insensitive design features devised by modern man (to my knowledge no female architect has as yet added her signature to the corridor).
But K Street is a street--an attractive, broad urban boulevard that frames the sky and establishes an unambiguous sense of space for the human beings who go there, drivers and pedestrians alike. It also establishes a place in which architecture, even bad architecture, must conform to certain rules or, to reverse the idea, the buildings with their uniform heights and boxy massing help greatly to define the space. Vainglorious facades matter a lot less in such circumstances.
Still, one of the lessons of K Street and Tysons is that people are amazingly resourceful and adaptable. The real life at Tysons, the lively fish in the pond, is seen in the people and their cars. They deserve better from architects, planners and the money people, but the energy of this curious adaptation is something to see.
So the point is not to wish a second coming of K Street upon Tysons Corner, obviously an inappropriate, even an evil, idea. (No one except the people who built it would wish a second K Street upon the District, either, and its spread is one of the city's big problems.) Nor is the idea to prevent change in the suburbs--an idiot notion anyway, like stopping a tank with a sling shot.
The issue is to predict change, to control it, to arrange that it contribute something to the general well-being, a process that will take a vision greater by far than is evident in the new Tysons. Clearly this is easier said than done, but if we are going to create some sort of new semi-urban, semi-dense, semi-free-flowing entity, ducks are not the only, or the best, architectural answer.